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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Born In The USA


1) Born In The USA; 2) Cover Me; 3) Darlington County; 4) Working On The Highway; 5) Downbound Train; 6) I'm On Fire; 7) No Surrender; 8) Bobby Jean; 9) I'm Goin' Down; 10) Glory Days; 11) Dancing In The Dark; 12) My Hometown.

There's no use pretending that this album is devoid of magic. There's no going against the bare facts: two listens at most, and these songs will stay with you forever — just remember the title, and the whole picture will come to you in a flash. Yes, this is largely because there is very little original songwriting here: most of these brawny rockers feature completely formulaic chord sequences, borrowed from blues, folk, country, and rockabilly, and very well tested by Father Time. But ol' Bruce knows how to make them come alive again under his own personal identity, and which particular notes, nooks and angles should be flash-lighted by means of the technolo­gical wonders of mid-Eighties' production. This could not have been anything but his commercial high peak — a simple, straightforward, immediately accessible and invigorating collection of kick-ass pop-rock tunes that was almost impossible not to buy in 1984.

Of course, it is also almost shamelessly manipulative. Liberals and democrats of all trades like to use the title track as indicative of conservative stupidity — always remembering how the Reagan people actually got in contact with the Springsteen people, asking them to allow the president to use the song in his ongoing campaign for re-election, despite the lyrics being so clearly ironic. But in fact, the Reagan people were certainly not stupid: most people, when hearing the song, would first and foremost be swayed by its anthemic, heck, its almost «jingoistic» refrain, and would hardly notice the lyrical content of the verses until much later. Does anybody really think this was not intentional — that neither Bruce nor Landau had anything but sheer intellectual irony on their minds? Maybe when it was still a humble acoustic demo during the Nebraska sessions, sure — but certainly not when it was transformed into this braggartly declamation, driven by Max Weinberg's killer drums and Bittan's fanfare-like synth riff. Like many other Springsteen songs, this one has a pair of different faces — one for the money, two for the show, and you have your choice of which one you'd like to consider the more important one.

Legend has it that after Nebraska, Springsteen actually engaged in a body-building program (any coincidence that First Blood came out in 1982?), and when you see the videos that accompanied the album — title track, ʽDancing In The Darkʼ, even ʽI'm On Fireʼ (where who else could our hero represent than a hard-working auto mechanic?) — you can understand that the man was really going all the way to refresh, solidify, and unify his image across all modes of perception, in a much more populist manner than even Born To Run could ever hint at. One reason why Bruce never made, or even tried to make, another album like this is that there was no need: Born In The USA made him into a living legend overnight, and from then on he could have released nothing but industrial noise or minimalist ambient albums all his life — having made his mark on the entire American nation, and even on quite a few people outside it, even if, technically, Born In The USA stigmatized him as a «local» phenomenon more than any other record.

And I have to admit that, on a sheer gut level, I feel more enthralled by this simplistic, straight-in-your-face approach than by the «quasi-progressiveness» of Born To Run. Case in point is ʽDancing In The Darkʼ, a song written at the last minute to complete the album and capture the man's then-current state of mind — the catchiness of its synth riff and elegantly resolved verse-chorus attack is not a simple formality, it is the perfect summarization of The Boss's entire «hope-in-the-face-of-impossible-odds» philosophy and quite a powerful musical anti-depressant in its own rights. In the famous video (and subsequent recreations of the video during the man's touring schedules, where he would pull out allegedly random girls from the audience for the last dance section), the song was primarily loaded with sexual connotations — what sort of a girl would re­fuse a fiery hunk like that? — but even its sexual connotations seem warranted here, not to men­tion all the other ones. And yeah, they found the perfect riff to fuel the fire.

Another personal favorite of mine has always been ʽBobby Jeanʼ, the most romantic-nostalgic track here and one of the few that could have perhaps fit in on Born To Run as well — a favorite largely because of Bittan's ABBA-style «grand» piano chords (three of them? four? no matter, less is more) that mesh so well with those vocals. It's a goddamn street romance story like every other, and I have no idea why it moves me so much more than ʽThunder Roadʼ, but there's just something about that piano and those hoarse vocals, and then of course Clarence has to come up and blow you away with one of those desperate sax solos. Such a simple, such a perfectly effec­tive formula, I cannot resist it.

Yes, the genius of Born In The USA is that, unlike The River which was somewhat bland, this one is really Darkness On The Edge Of Town, repackaged in this much more simple way. Most of the songs are pretty bleak — ʽCover Meʼ is about using love as a last resort, ʽDownbound Trainʼ is about when not even love can help, ʽI'm Goin' Downʼ is about when love turns out to be a drag, and ʽI'm On Fireʼ is about... uh, well, it's kinda creepy, actually, when you listen to his "six-inch valley through the middle of my skull" metaphors. You don't want to mess around with The Boss when he's singing about his sex drive — Mick Jagger would be mincemeat against this heap of muscles circa 1984. But even so, ʽI'm On Fireʼ is explicitly about not getting any, and does anyone have any idea how many horny teenagers identified with the song that year?

On the other hand, if the album were all bleak, this might have hurt sales — so there's one for the truck drivers (ʽDarlington Countyʼ), one for the chain gang (ʽWorking On The Highwayʼ), one for the school skippers (ʽNo Surrenderʼ), one for the old folks (ʽGlory Daysʼ)... basically, it would only be the jaded intellectuals, I guess, who wouldn't have a tune here designed especially for them, everybody else in America had at least one or more. Really, the construction of the al­bum is totally admirable — it is a perfectly thought out mechanism, no cog or wheel wasted, not a second out of place. Look how each of the two sides ends with a «softie» — ʽI'm On Fireʼ slowly putting out the flame of Side A, then ʽMy Hometownʼ, on an almost «adult contempo­rary» note (ironically, presaging much of the sound of Tunnel Of Love), quietly calms us down after ʽDancing In The Darkʼ had us all riled up. These are darn clever engineering solutions. Darn clever. How could this not have been such a huge success? After all, people who bought the record were only people. Defenseless against such a well-armed construction.

Is there any actual harm, though, from falling under the spell of Born In The USA? Well, there's nothing particularly wrong with liking Springsteen in general or this record in particular — it ain't sleazy, it doesn't have too much pretense, it isn't too dumb from a general musical standpoint (yes, these synth riffs are simpler than anything so far, but in many cases, this is genius simplicity, even if I do feel silly listening to ʽGlory Daysʼ), and it kicks ass. Many «hardcore» Springsteen fans seem offended by its simplicity — this sudden appeal to millions rather than just thousands makes them feel that Bruce is intentionally cheapening his act here, and he is, but see, the thing is, there's nothing inherently wrong about cheap acts if they're done with spirit. Even if he is acting all the way, Born In The USA sounds more adequate and convincing to me than Born To Run, and I can neither admit to hating it nor even to wanting to find a reason why I should.

Rereading an older review of this record by a much younger me, I'm sort of amused how I used to take this «he's dumbing it down, oh God no how come he's dumbing it down so much?» thing so much to heart, essentially leaving The Boss in a «damned if you do, damned if you don't» posi­tion: when he is «glorifying» and «complexifying» the common man on Born To Run, he gets slapped — when he is talking to the common man in common language on Born In The USA, he gets destroyed, come on now, this just ain't fair. As a symbol of repentance, I have just happily sung along to all the sha-la-la-las of ʽDarlington Countyʼ, and you know what? it was fun, you should try it, too, some day. Thumbs up, I'm going to play air guitar to ʽWorking On The High­wayʼ now — just please don't ask me to jack off to ʽI'm On Fireʼ, because that would be taking this album way too seriously and spoiling all the fun.


  1. Now I'm sure none of us expected you to take this one so favourably. Personally, I'll still prefer BtR from a musical perspective – I'm further from identifying with the message than you – simply because the grander Phil Spector/rock sound is closer to the sounds I like most, and whether you agree with Bruce or not, I still get the impression that the LP is resonant. This one is too, but more in the way that a simple, yet clever pop album is. Ah heck, they're probably equal in my book then...

  2. Bruce Springsteen, getting by with his sincerity (even when he simplifies) once again.

  3. This is my favorite Springsteen album, and one of my favorite records ever. The songwriting isn't complex, but the record itself is. It wants to shout out against endless war, the economy, race-related violence, the prison system and police state, feeling nostalgic for better times when we were younger. But still patriotic, proud, and wanting to get out on a weekend night and dance despite the fact that when Monday comes you want to change everything about your life. It's a depressed American questioning itself, but on a Friday night, ready to hit the town anyway. And *everything* on this record still feels relevant today, for better or worse, from the title track all the way to My Hometown. His vocal performances are stellar.

    1. Also, I feel as if with the title track, Bruce knew it could be produced as a hit, but in order to avoid compromising the song he chose to tear his vocal chords to shred and deliver the verses at the same volume as the chorus. His singing is in the red from start to finish. If people misinterpreted the song, at least he know they could visit it on reexamination and thing, "well yeah, now that you mention it, he sounds angry as fuck and those verses are clearly not delivering good news."

  4. It sucks. You were right the first time.

    1. Spoken with the courageous forthrightness of anonymity.

  5. "Most of the songs are pretty bleak"
    Nope. They lyrics are bleak, the music isn't.

    "does anyone have any idea how many horny teenagers identified with the song that year?"
    My guess is not many. My guess is that those who bought the album mainly were in their twenties. They were at the beginning of their careers, had families to maintain, mortgages or rent to be paid. In other words: they just had entered the treadmill called adult life. They may not exactly have longed back to the good old teen years, but still wanted to keep some of the rebellious spirit of that stage. At the other hand they couldn't afford anymore to be too rebellious.
    I already argued that at least in Europe Springsteen was not the spokesman of the working class. Here I point out that teens in the 80's either bought Madonna, Prince and/or Michael Jackson or went extreme - stuff like Black Flag or Metallica. Springsteen did not represent them either - in their eyes he was either an old fart (Madonna and Jon Bon Jovi are much younger) or part of the establishment.
    So the question is: did Springsteen want to be the spokesman of those young adults? To me it seems not, given his lyrics. My conclusion is that Born in the USA is Springsteen's quintessential album. It makes clear that he was a failure given the goals he had set himself (or Landau). He was not a saviour of rock'n'roll. Worse - he was doomed not to be one. As a project Springsteen was a failure and this is the album that shows it. Reagan's "mistake" is the perfect illustration.
    All this doesn't mean the album is an artistic failure. But just like with his debut album I have the feeling that Springsteen did not develop the full potential of the songs. That might have been deliberate (sales) or not (Springsteen lacking artistic skills) but it prevents me from enjoying any song. Of course fans are totally free to do so.
    But given Manfred Mann's two excellent covers (plus a very good one) I cannot help wonder: would the album not have made a much, much stronger social statement if the Earth Band had rearranged it from the first to the last note?

    1. The greatest live rock performer of all time, one of the biggest-selling recording artists of all time, and generally acknowledged (putting politics aside) to be one of the rare really good guys in the entertainment business, who not only raises awareness of important issues but has raised huge amounts of money toward addressing them. We should all be such failures.

  6. (George, maybe give up on the 'Rambo' references already? It was already getting desperate on the previous site.) The main point I would agree with in George's new review is that there are two sides to this music -- depending on my mood, the record can feel very bleak and down, or very uplifting. I like that it can work both ways. This album is the first time (and really, the last) that Springsteen took the "easy" path to commercial success by stockpiling a single disc with short, catchy tunes. He could have made an LP like this in 1978 or 1980 or 1982, but chose not to. I think the timing was just right, and I'm really glad he had his 'fastball down the middle' album to galvanize the masses.

    It's a really, really great record even if it doesn't quite hang together conceptually. I generally skip "Cover Me", sometimes "No Surrender", and occasionally "Glory Days". "Cover Me" just feels like a throwaway pop tune with no particularly redeeming quality (he apparently wrote it with Donna Summer in mind), and Bruce didn't want "No Surrender" on the album but was pushed into it by Van Zandt (who then quit the group). It's okay, but a bit desperately adolescent. "Glory Days" is a great song, but sometimes too populist for me.

    The rest is diamond, including "Dancing in the Dark", one of the finest lyrics an 80s' pop hit ever had. "Born in the USA" is one of the greatest tracks I've ever heard, period. (The image of the Vietnam vet, 10 years on, alone and unsettled, is beautifully captured in this song. He clearly loves his country, but is also angry and desperate, shouting out to no one his pain. It's lyrically masterful. The track can reduce me to tears.) "Downbound Train" is so evocative.

    One of the 'lesser' tracks that I absolutely love is "Darlington County". The riff is badass, the band is loose and swinging, the vibe happy but with an edge as we await the fate of "Wayne". This is 33-year-old Bruce projecting himself back to Steel Mill days of 1969/70.

    The lyrics on this record are just fantastic.

    Many of the tracks were cut in 1982, around the time 'Nebraska' was issued. The album went through many different configurations.

    (Oh, by the way -- The "Reagan people" did not get in touch with the Springsteen people. It started when drummer Max Weinberg invited the conservative "This Week with David Brinkley" panel to a Springsteen show in Maryland. Only George Will showed up, and in September 1984 his column mentioned Springsteen, saying "There is still nothing quite like being born in the USA". This may have been what brought it to Reagan's PR-team's attention. Reagan was just doing his fly-by of New Jersey on the re-election campaign and talked up Bruce in his brief address to Jersey. Hilariously, when the press asked his office for the President's favorite Springsteen song, the response was "Born to Run".)

    1. 1) "In this summer of discontent, Bruce Springsteen is the Rambo of rock and roll" - Chicago Tribune, August 9, 1985.

      2) "The office of presidential handler Michael Deaver contacted Springsteen's promoter, who relayed the request to appear with Reagan" - Jim Cullen, "Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition", 1997.

      I take credit for neither of these.

    2. 1) Okay, but... this proves what? I would say constantly referring to Springsteen as "Rambo" is more than a little disingenuous. (Also, what the hell does that headline even mean?)
      2) I don't think that is accurate. For one thing, there was no request to appear with Reagan. (Even the Republican party isn't that stupid.)

  7. Remember the days when George was young and fiery, and not a soft populist puppet?

    Just kidding. As it's been a while since I've heard most of the songs off the album I won't say that one review was right and the other wrong. But I will say that, while "Dancing in the Dark" was a decent enough pop song, the title track and "Glory Days" struck me as the epitome of dumb 80's music, with their braindead-cheery chords and obnoxious keyboard work. Stupid songs for stupid people, the cynic in me would say -- or at least people with much lower standards. Hearing them way back in the day, I assumed they were par for the course -- now older, knowing that Springsteen was capable of writing much better music, it's more disappointing than ever. Are they catchy? Sure -- so was a lot of glam metal, and frankly I'd much rather listen to "Kickstart My Heart" or "Pour Some Sugar On Me", as stupid as those songs were.

    But since I haven't heard most of the other songs in years, I'll listen to the album again before I cast my final judgment.

  8. Whoa, wasn't expecting a thumbs up for this album, considering the vitriol you spewed at it on the old site. But I agree with your new sentiment-- I love this album. I might go as far as saying it's my favorite effort by the Boss (with "Darkness" a close second). Still anticipating your evisceration of Tom Joad though.

  9. To quote comedian Richard Belzer in 1984, "Bruce Springsteen is so big he has more money than God."

  10. To update something I wrote (above) -- "Darlington County" actually dates from 1977, when Bruce and the E-Streeters first rehearsed it. Apparently the original 'versions' differ little in lyrics and arrangement from the BITUSA version. Awesome song anyway.

  11. Never thought I'd see the day - but I'm glad I did. Not that you were wrong before, just listening with different ears. But I'm glad we can now both sing along to "Darlington County".

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